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Thoughts from the Frontline Archive, October 2020

The Green Shoots of 2020
  • October 23, 2020

The Green Shoots of 2020

Those who lived through the last financial crisis might may recall the Green Shoots episode. It drew laughs on March 15, 2009, shortly after the Federal Reserve fired its heaviest artillery and, we now know, launched the longest bull market in history.

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Timeline to the New Normal
  • October 9, 2020

Timeline to the New Normal

Like everyone else, I am weary of this pandemic mess. I want to travel freely, enjoy dinner with friends, hug, and shake hands.

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Stall Speed Economy
  • September 18, 2020

Stall Speed Economy

When Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781, tradition has it that the British band played an old English children’s folk tune, “The World Turned Upside Down.”

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On the Question of Current and Future Lockdowns
  • September 11, 2020

On the Question of Current and Future Lockdowns

Simply discussing COVID-19 will undoubtedly make this letter controversial and, in some circles, political. That is not my intent. I truly believe that something affecting all of us so deeply should be kept in the scientific realm to the extent possible, not the political. Sadly, that is not the case today in many countries.

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Inflation Virus Strikes Fed
  • September 4, 2020

Inflation Virus Strikes Fed

One little-noted aspect of central bank policy is how rarely “policy” happens. Officials at the Federal Reserve and elsewhere long ago learned how to achieve their goals without actually doing anything. Creating perceptions is often enough to modify people’s behavior.

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Light in the COVID Tunnel
  • August 28, 2020

Light in the COVID Tunnel

If you ever think you just can’t win, I know how you feel. I’m labeled both a doomsayer and a Pollyanna—sometimes in reaction to the same letter.

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Business on the Frontline
  • August 21, 2020

Business on the Frontline

I write this introduction from an all-too-short vacation in Montana (more below). This week I have asked my longtime associate Patrick Watson to step in and write Thoughts from the Frontline, offering his perspective as a small business owner.

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Yellow Flag Jobs Data
  • August 7, 2020

Yellow Flag Jobs Data

As I file this letter Friday morning, people are reacting to the July jobs report. My own reaction: The headline report is absurd. I will explain further at the end of this letter. But first, I have another topic.

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European Resurgence
  • July 31, 2020

European Resurgence

One of COVID-19’s many less-than-obvious consequences is the way it makes us look inward. Facing mortality has always done that, of course. West Texas Judge Roy Bean reportedly said, “Nothing focuses the mind like a good hanging.” For the vulnerable and those of us of a certain age (ahem), this virus goes beyond the normal daily risks.

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Valuation Inflation
  • July 24, 2020

Valuation Inflation

 

 


“In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”

            —Benjamin Graham

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Small Business Blues
  • July 17, 2020

Small Business Blues

Politicians love saying small businesses are important to the economy. In this case, it isn’t just rhetoric. The millions of little companies with a handful of workers are, collectively, more important than the few hundred large enterprises we see in the news.

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Stumble-Through Jobs Market
  • July 10, 2020

Stumble-Through Jobs Market

Work has always been a fact of life. Paycheck-producing jobs are actually a recent development. Until the Industrial Revolution, most people lived on subsistence agriculture, sustaining themselves with whatever they could produce or working as slaves/serfs.

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The Blacker Swan
  • July 3, 2020

The Blacker Swan

“A similar effect is taking place in economic life. I spoke about globalization in Chapter 3; it is here, but it is not all for the good: it creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words, it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are now interrelated. So, the financial...

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A Recession Like No Other
  • June 26, 2020

A Recession Like No Other

We just spent the better part of a decade wondering when the next recession would strike. The last two months we stopped wondering. It’s here and a grand council of esteemed economists has confirmed it.

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Where We Go from Here
  • June 19, 2020

Where We Go from Here

Predictions are difficult, especially those about the future. That old proverb (often attributed to Yogi Berra) is right but you can’t live without making certain presumptions. You presume your car will start, your refrigerator will stay cold, the lights will turn on when you flip the switch.

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The Stumble-Through Economy
  • June 12, 2020

The Stumble-Through Economy

We are on the horns of a dilemma, caught between the Scylla and Charybdis, a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea, the anvil and the hammer. The walls are closing in. We’re in a tight spot.

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Economics in Orbit
  • May 29, 2020

Economics in Orbit

The history of humanity, at least as taught in most schools, is really about two seemingly opposite forces: human innovation and human conflict. The same intelligence that lets us accomplish great things also sets us against each other. But sometimes, we rise above it.

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Rewinding the Tape
  • May 22, 2020

Rewinding the Tape

We finished the Virtual Strategic Investment Conference yesterday. I can honestly say it was simply the best conference I have ever attended or been privileged to host. The ability to bring together so many exciting speakers, something schedules would not have allowed if we were holding a physical conference, offered a constant stream of thought-provoking, investment-enhancing, and useful information.

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Reflection Week
  • May 15, 2020

Reflection Week

I knew this letter’s topic months ago. It was going to be a review of the Strategic Investment Conference, which would have just concluded fabulously in sunny Scottsdale.

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Five Viral Lessons
  • May 8, 2020

Five Viral Lessons

We live in truly historic times. “There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen,” says a quote usually attributed to Vladimir Lenin. It certainly fits now.

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The Figure-It-Out Economy
  • May 1, 2020

The Figure-It-Out Economy

Market sentiment reflects human sentiment, which lately has been quite negative—understandably so, given the great uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. A month ago, we didn’t know where all this was going but it was potentially serious.

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Viral Thoughts
  • April 24, 2020

Viral Thoughts

We are looking at a world with parameters bounded by pure imagination; where we go from here is anyone's guess.

—Will Thomson and Chip Russell, Massif Capital

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Repricing the World
  • April 17, 2020

Repricing the World

The viral fog is starting to thin. US coronavirus case growth appears to be slowing, albeit at a tragically high level. Governments and businesses are thinking about the next stage.

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Bending the Inflation Curve
  • April 10, 2020

Bending the Inflation Curve

“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output. … A steady rate of monetary growth at a moderate level can provide a framework under which a country can have little inflation and much growth.”

—Milton Friedman, The Counter-Revolution in Monetary Theory (1970)

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Notes from Lockdown
  • April 3, 2020

Notes from Lockdown

In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

—Eric Hoffer

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Postcards from the Frontline
  • March 27, 2020

Postcards from the Frontline

Unprecedented events are happening so fast, I barely know where to start. But let’s begin with a small one, noticeable perhaps only to me.

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The Beacons Are Lit
  • March 20, 2020

The Beacons Are Lit

In the film version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, there’s a three-minute scene you should watch or re-watch. It is relevant to our situation today. Gondor needed to light the beacons for aid.

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Coronavirus Helicopter Money
  • March 13, 2020

Coronavirus Helicopter Money

I write this letter early Friday morning after a week in New York visiting with many fellow market participants. And lots of phone calls, both to analysts and medical experts. I had originally planned a completely different letter but circumstances changed.

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Chinese Coronavirus Changeup
  • March 6, 2020

Chinese Coronavirus Changeup

In baseball, there is a kind of pitch called the “changeup,” designed to look like a fastball while actually going slower. The deceived batter swings too soon and misses. Strike, you’re out. The world has thrown a wicked biological changeup at the global economy.

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COVID-19: A Crisis the Fed Can’t Fix
  • February 28, 2020

COVID-19: A Crisis the Fed Can’t Fix

For the last 3+ years, I have maintained it would take an “exogenous” event to send the United States into recession. Historically suboptimal growth? Sure, but sub-3% growth isn’t a recession.

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Why Americans Want Socialism
  • February 21, 2020

Why Americans Want Socialism

As I write this, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” is leading the race for one of our major parties’ presidential nomination. The fact that so many Americans (especially young Americans) support Bernie Sanders ought to tell us something. A Quinnipiac poll out this week showed Senator Sanders with 54% support among Democrats age 18–34. Meanwhile, 50% of adults under 38 told the Harris Poll last year that they would “prefer living in a socialist country.”

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The Hits to GDP
  • February 7, 2020

The Hits to GDP

Economists and investors are rightly obsessed with growth. We always want more of it. We worry it won’t come or, worse, might turn into contraction. Economists of all stripes, from Paul Krugman to Lacy Hunt, recognize economic growth cures all manner of ills.

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Dismissing the Experts
  • January 31, 2020

Dismissing the Experts

Regular readers know I often criticize so-called “experts,” usually economists or central bankers whose flawed decisions are punishing the rest of us. I find their expertise is not nearly as reliable as they seem to think.

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Nose Blind to Inflation
  • January 24, 2020

Nose Blind to Inflation

The human brain excels at taking shortcuts. Processing all the information our senses collect takes a lot of energy, so repetitive data gets lower priority. Things we see often fade into the background so we can notice new stuff.

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Looking on the Bright Side
  • January 17, 2020

Looking on the Bright Side

We haven’t had a lot of good news lately. Or, more precisely, we haven’t seen a lot of good news lately, though it does exist. We don’t see it because both regular media and social media usually focus on the bad.

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Decade of Living Dangerously, Part 1
  • January 3, 2020

Decade of Living Dangerously, Part 1

Welcome to the 2020s. Some weren’t sure we would make it this far, but we did. Now we face a new decade and new challenges. How we handle them will determine what kind of conversation we have in 2030.

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Prelude to Crisis
  • December 20, 2019

Prelude to Crisis

Ignoring problems rarely solves them. You need to deal with them—not just the effects, but the underlying causes, or else they usually get worse. The older you get, the more you know that is true in almost every area of life.

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Time to Do the Hard Thing
  • December 13, 2019

Time to Do the Hard Thing

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

John F. Kennedy, 1962

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Inflationary Angst
  • December 6, 2019

Inflationary Angst

According to the dictionary, the word angst refers to “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.” It comes from a German word for “fear.”

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Advice Worth Taking
  • November 27, 2019

Advice Worth Taking

We’ve reached the Thanksgiving weekend, and as always, I’m thankful for loyal readers like you. I hope you are enjoying some quality time with family and friends.

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Muddling for Solutions
  • November 22, 2019

Muddling for Solutions

Those who experienced the 1930s as adults are mostly gone now, but they left notes. We have a pretty good record of what that period was like. It wasn’t fun to begin with—then it got worse.

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The Road to Default
  • November 15, 2019

The Road to Default

Nothing is forever, not even debt. Every borrower eventually either repays what they owe, or defaults. Lenders may or may not have remedies. But one way or another, the debt goes away.

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Slowing but Not Stopping (Yet)
  • November 8, 2019

Slowing but Not Stopping (Yet)

If you are a computer (other than the newest experimental quantum ones), your world is entirely binary. Everything is some combination of zeroes and ones. The machines can do marvelous things with those two digits but they have limits.

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Chinese Chess Game
  • November 1, 2019

Chinese Chess Game

Every investment decision should have an exit strategy. What will you do if your idea doesn’t work? Ideally, you make that decision before you invest. Mistakes are inevitable but survivable if you recognize them quickly and act to minimize their costs.

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Decoding the Fed
  • October 18, 2019

Decoding the Fed

“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

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Our Nuts Are in Danger
  • October 11, 2019

Our Nuts Are in Danger

Life would be so much easier if we didn’t have to worry about our financial futures. Though I suppose we don’t have to worry. Animals don’t. Squirrels instinctively store away nuts and thus live through winter without much thought.

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Quantum Economics
  • September 27, 2019

Quantum Economics

I often say a writer is nothing without readers. I am blessed to have some of the world’s greatest. Your feedback never fails to inspire and enlighten me.

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That Time Keynes Had a Point
  • September 20, 2019

That Time Keynes Had a Point

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

―John Maynard Keynes

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Black Hole Investing
  • September 13, 2019

Black Hole Investing

Scientists say the rules change in a cosmic “black hole” at what astrophysicists call the event horizon. How do they know that? Not by observation, since what happens in there is, by definition, un-seeable. They infer it from the surroundings, which say that the mathematics of the universe as we understand them change at the event horizon.

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Dalio’s Analogue and Mauldin’s Commentary
  • September 6, 2019

Dalio’s Analogue and Mauldin’s Commentary

“The best way out is always through.”

—Robert Frost

History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

―Mark Twain

It will not shock you when I say we live in confusing times. Odd, seemingly inconsistent events and decisions don’t bring the expected results. Once-reliable rules don’t work. This makes it hard to chart a personal and business path forward.

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Volatile Year Coming
  • August 30, 2019

Volatile Year Coming

We have reached Labor Day weekend which, in the US, is a holiday for honoring work and workers. If you’re a Baby Boomer like me, you also grew up knowing school was about to start again. We didn’t do the mid-August thing back then. The first day of school was the day after Labor Day. That meant entering a new grade with unknown challenges.

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Digging a Hole to China
  • August 23, 2019

Digging a Hole to China

Good news: The trade war is over. No, it’s getting worse. Or maybe it is ending but it could start again tomorrow.

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What I Learned at Camp Kotok
  • August 16, 2019

What I Learned at Camp Kotok

I am back from my 14th annual Maine fishing camp and the mood was decidedly different this year. The private event at Leen’s Lodge is generally called Camp Kotok in honor of David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors who started these outings many years ago. CNBC and others began calling it the “Shadow Fed” but it is really just a meeting of wickedly smart people focused on economics and markets. (I am allowed to attend for comic relief.) Throw in a little fishing, more fabulous food and wine than...

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Larry Kotlikoff on The Big Con
  • August 9, 2019

Larry Kotlikoff on The Big Con

I have a special treat for you. I’m at Camp Kotok, the annual economics/fishing retreat in Maine. Knowing internet connectivity would be scarce here, I asked good friend Larry Kotlikoff to be your guest writer this week.

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An Opportunity in the Chaos
  • August 2, 2019

An Opportunity in the Chaos

One reason the economy is so fascinating is the way things just… happen. Growth blossoms if everyone just follows their own incentives and nothing gets in the way. The courage, vision and passion of entrepreneurs and those who risk their money backing them is one of the most inspiring aspects of modern civilization. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand of now tens of millions of businesses, small and large and giant, working to produce and deliver inventions, technologies and cures that help us all....

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Money of the Future
  • July 26, 2019

Money of the Future

As I work on my book about the future, I think a lot about the ways possible events will affect our money. But I’m also thinking about something else: What kind of money will we use?

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Recession Rumbles
  • July 19, 2019

Recession Rumbles

I’m often asked if recession is coming, and for quite different reasons. Some people worry about their investments. Others are worried about their employment or their kids. Political types wonder if and how recession could affect the next election.

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Ray Dalio - John Mauldin Discussion, Part 5
  • July 5, 2019

Ray Dalio - John Mauldin Discussion, Part 5

“The belief that wealth subsists not in ideas, attitudes, moral codes, and mental disciplines but in identifiable and static things that can be seized and redistributed is the materialist superstition. It stultified the works of Marx and other prophets of violence and envy. It frustrates every socialist revolutionary who imagines that by seizing the so-called means of production he can capture the crucial capital of an economy. It is the undoing of nearly every conglomerateur who believes he...

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Ray Dalio Is Kinda, Sorta, Really Wrong, Part 3
  • June 21, 2019

Ray Dalio Is Kinda, Sorta, Really Wrong, Part 3

Two weeks ago I started a mini-series in the form of an open letter responding to a series of essays by Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates. I wrote here and here that he was kinda, sorta wrong in Why and How Capitalism Needs to Be Reformed, Parts 1 and 2 but really, really wrong in It’s Time to Look More Carefully at ‘Monetary Policy 3 (MP3)’ and ‘Modern Monetary Theory,’ in which he basically endorsed MMT. Today I continue my response.

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Ray Dalio Is Kinda, Sorta, Really Wrong, Part 2
  • June 14, 2019

Ray Dalio Is Kinda, Sorta, Really Wrong, Part 2

Last week we started a mini-series in the form of an open letter responding to a series of essays by Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates. I wrote that he was kinda, sorta wrong in Why and How Capitalism Needs to Be Reformed, Parts 1 and 2 but really, really wrong in It’s Time to Look More Carefully at ‘Monetary Policy 3 (MP3)’ and ‘Modern Monetary Theory,’ in which he basically endorsed MMT. Today I continue my response.

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Ray Dalio Is Kinda, Sorta, Really Wrong
  • June 7, 2019

Ray Dalio Is Kinda, Sorta, Really Wrong

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”
John Maynard Keynes

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The Trump Trade War Recession?
  • May 31, 2019

The Trump Trade War Recession?

Publisher’s Note: John Mauldin is recovering from a minor illness. He’ll be back next week. Meanwhile, with trade disputes still roiling markets, below is a still-timely letter he wrote last year. You should definitely read it again. Ed D’Agostino

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Why Debt Won’t Spark Inflation
  • May 24, 2019

Why Debt Won’t Spark Inflation

Modern technology was supposed to make travel less necessary. We can meet by phone, video, and now in virtual reality. But we’re still traveling more than ever. I certainly am.

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Takeaways from the SIC
  • May 17, 2019

Takeaways from the SIC

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

—David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

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Your Pension May Be Monetized
  • May 10, 2019

Your Pension May Be Monetized

One difficulty in analyzing our economic future is the sheer number of potential crises. When so much could go wrong (and really right, when the exponential technologies I foresee get here), it’s hard to isolate, let alone navigate, the real dangers. We are tempted to ignore them all. Ignoring them is usually the right response, too. We can “Muddle Through” almost anything.

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Time to Change Strategy
  • May 3, 2019

Time to Change Strategy

My recent letters described what I think the future will look like. I hasten to add, it isn’t what I think the future should look like or what I want to see. Almost the entire developed world has painted itself into a corner.

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How I Learned to Love the Debt
  • April 26, 2019

How I Learned to Love the Debt

The US, Europe, and most of the developed world on are the road to Japanification. Like I wrote last week, we will see financial repression, ever increasing deficits, slower growth, etc. Essentially, the rest of us will begin to look like Japan with its astronomical deficits and ultra-dovish monetary policy.

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Japanified World Ahead
  • April 12, 2019

Japanified World Ahead

Regular readers may have noticed me slowly losing confidence in the economy. Your impression is correct and there’s a good reason for it, as I will explain today. The facts have changed so my conclusions are changing, too.

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Capitalism Gone Wild
  • April 5, 2019

Capitalism Gone Wild

Recession is coming. We can debate the timing, but the economy will turn decisively downward at some point. My own analysis, looking at the data available on April 4, says recession isn’t likely this year but unfortunately looks very probable in 2020.

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Recession Signs Everywhere
  • March 29, 2019

Recession Signs Everywhere

This month, the Federal Reserve joined its global peers by turning decisively dovish. Jerome Powell and friends haven’t just stopped tightening. Soon they will begin actively easing by reinvesting the Fed’s maturing mortgage bonds into Treasury securities. It’s not exactly “Quantitative Easing I, II, and III,” but it will have some of the same effects.

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No Free Lunch, Part 2
  • March 22, 2019

No Free Lunch, Part 2

Matching the stock market’s long-term average returns sounds like it should be easy, if you’re patient enough. But in fact it is remarkably difficult. In last week’s letter, Ed Easterling and I showed you why it is a longshot bet in almost every market environment. Returns over a decade or two are usually well above or well below average. Most of all, it’s fairly predictable which side of average will occur.

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No Free Lunch: Valuation Determines Return
  • March 15, 2019

No Free Lunch: Valuation Determines Return

Last week, I described the enormous challenges retirees face. One reason for that, aside from insufficient savings, is that markets haven’t delivered the returns many experts said we could plan on.

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Retirement Isn’t Happening
  • March 8, 2019

Retirement Isn’t Happening

I have long said I don’t want to retire. I enjoy my work. It’s not too physical, other than the travel (which is finally beginning to wear on me). Also, my savings are not yet sufficient to sustain the retirement lifestyle Shane and I want. I could retire now but would rather wait.

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The Fed Is Playing a Dangerous Game
  • March 1, 2019

The Fed Is Playing a Dangerous Game

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to read the Federal Reserve’s rabbit entrails to discern the economy. But Since the Fed exists in the real world, and its decisions matter, we have to pay attention.

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Recession: Are We There Yet?
  • February 22, 2019

Recession: Are We There Yet?

An old joke says economists predicted 15 of the last 10 recessions. In other words, they’re frequently wrong and often too pessimistic.

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Modern Monetary Madness
  • February 15, 2019

Modern Monetary Madness

More than 10 years ago some Australian readers begin regaling me with the ideas of economist Bill Mitchell of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales. He was teaching about something he called (and he coined the term) Modern Monetary Theory. I looked into it and fairly quickly dismissed it as silly. Actually printing money as an economic policy? Get serious.

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Capitalism Without Competition
  • February 8, 2019

Capitalism Without Competition

The Soviet Union’s collapse and spread of semi-free markets through Eastern Europe seemingly ended the socialism vs. capitalism argument. Capitalism had won. Collectivist economies everywhere began turning free. Even communist China adopted a form of free market capitalism although, as they say, with “Chinese characteristics.”

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Bull in the China Shop
  • January 18, 2019

Bull in the China Shop

The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.... And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.

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Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • January 11, 2019

Something Wicked This Way Comes

For a couple of years now, the economic narrative has shown a comparatively strong US against weakness in Europe and some of Asia (NOT China). The US, we are told, will stay on top. I agree with that, as far as it goes... but I’m not convinced the “top” will be so great.

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The Year of Living Dangerously
  • January 4, 2019

The Year of Living Dangerously

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

…By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.

- William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I, 1606

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Powell, the Third Mandate, the New Fed and Crawdads
  • December 21, 2018

Powell, the Third Mandate, the New Fed and Crawdads

We have reached the best time of year, when we can look to the future with hope. We can stop wondering what will happen in 2018 and look forward to 2019. The investment industry always does this enthusiastically, as you will see in forecasts everywhere the next few weeks.

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The Misunderstood Flattening Yield Curve
  • December 14, 2018

The Misunderstood Flattening Yield Curve

Everybody is suddenly talking about the inverted yield curve. They’re right to do so, too, but alarm bells may be premature. Inversion is a historically reliable but early recession indicator. The yield curve isn’t saying recession is imminent, even if it were fully inverted, which it is not.

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European Threats
  • December 7, 2018

European Threats

Someone asked recently how many times I had “crossed the pond” to Europe. I really don’t know. Certainly dozens of times. It’s been several times a year for as long as I remember.

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Pyramids of Crisis
  • November 30, 2018

Pyramids of Crisis

In an increasingly divided world, we all share one great desire: self-preservation. Not just humans, either. The survival instinct exists in almost every living thing. Humans simply have greater ability to do something about it.

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